Ear­li­er this week, Michael Wex wrote about cre­at­ing the sound of Yid­dish in his nov­el and the begin­ning of his lit­er­ary career. His newest nov­el, Shlep­ping the Exile, will be pub­lished by St. Mar­t­in’s Press next week. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

It took me more than three years to fin­ish Shlep­ping the Exile. I had a job as a researcher in pedi­atric neu­ro­surgery to go to and a dis­ser­ta­tion on the Mid­dle Eng­lish Pearl to try to avoid, and more than dis­ap­point­ed, I was pos­i­tive­ly crest­fall­en to dis­cov­er that nobody in the excit­ing, high stakes worlds of com­mer­cial and small press pub­lish­ing real­ly cared. I sent queries, una­gent­ed and unso­licit­ed, to var­i­ous pub­lish­ers, sub­mit­ted selec­tions to every lit­er­ary mag­a­zine whose address I could find. The encour­ag­ing rejec­tions usu­al­ly includ­ed a Yid­dish word or two—le-chaim at the end instead of yours tru­ly, or Mazl tov on a stun­ning achieve­ment, but it’s not for us at this time.” The less friend­ly ones tend­ed to come from edi­tors who’d received my man­u­script from one of their writ­ers. To many of them, I was an anti-Semi­te; to a few oth­ers, a dis­grace to my peo­ple — Would you let your par­ents read this?” Vir­tu­al­ly all of them saw the use of Yid­dish as an anachro­nis­tic draw­back. The only thing that might have inter­est­ed them about my adult char­ac­ters was their expe­ri­ences dur­ing World War II: You can clear­ly write,” one of them told me, give us more Holo­caust.” After let­ters like that, I was almost hap­py to have the man­u­script called pornog­ra­phy in dialect,” a put-down that did­n’t real­ly sting, though I’d have been even hap­pi­er if the woman who’d hand­writ­ten it on the title page put pornog­ra­phy mit a hek­sent” instead.

After two or three years of this, I was start­ing to get des­per­ate. I for­got about pub­lish­ing and took the book back to its ori­gins, pre­sent­ing self-con­tained excerpts in com­e­dy clubs, sto­ry­telling venues, the­atres, any­where where I could get onto a stage. I’d done enough sto­ry­telling and stand-up that find­ing places to appear was­n’t much of a prob­lem, espe­cial­ly because I only held a piece of paper in my hand if the event was called a read­ing. Oth­er­wise, I gave per­for­mances of mate­r­i­al from the book, sell­ing pho­to­copied, per­fect-bound copies of the texts wher­ev­er sales were allowed. 

They moved sur­pris­ing­ly briskly, even though they did­n’t look like much, and proved beyond any doubt that the sus­pi­cions I’d been nurs­ing for so long were true. Jews liked the stuff, gen­tiles liked the stuff; Eng­lish-speak­ing Fran­coph­o­nes real­ly liked the stuff. Young peo­ple, old peo­ple, women and men. Every­body liked it except peo­ple who worked in pub­lish­ing. I like to think of it as the dawn of a tradition.

Five years after I fin­ished the book, I per­formed part of it at a par­ty in hon­or of the great Chilean poet and artist, Lud­wig Zeller, who was liv­ing in Toron­to at the time. After I’d fin­ished, his Cana­di­an pub­lish­er came up to me and asked if I had any of it writ­ten down. All of it,” I told him, and explained what I was up to. He told me to send him a copy; I did. Two years lat­er, it came out. There was no line-edit­ing, no copy-edit­ing; aside from typos, it was the text as sub­mit­ted, but it took two years to come out. 

If he’d ever sent me any mon­ey, it might not be com­ing out again, cor­rect­ed and plumped up, a good forty pages longer than it used to be. Peo­ple ask me how you fit new stuff into the midst of mate­r­i­al up to thir­ty years old. The answer deserves a book of its own.

Read more about Michael Wex here.